The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. ~John Locke

"One of the more curious displays of cultural illiteracy has been the consternation and bafflement created by Judge Clarence Thomas’s expressions of esteem for “natural law.” For some of the critics of the nominee to the Supreme Court, it was as though the man had let slip a reference to torture by thumbscrews. Others squinted as though Judge Thomas had disclosed an obscure and probably sinister belief in alchemy.
These are strange reactions to a philosophical theory stretching back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, propounded by the Stoics, developed anew by medieval churchmen like Aquinas, elaborated in secular terms by Protestant jurists like Grotius and Pufendorf, reshaped to justify ‘natural rights’ by Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson and Adams, and invoked in the cause of racial equality by Abram Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and yes, even the man Judge Thomas has been nominated to replace, Thurgood Marshall."[1]

Before his nomination, Clarence Thomas endorsed “the higher law political philosophy of the Founding Fathers,”[2] that is, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” The philosophy of natural law was fundamental to the founding of America, and it is to our detriment that so few people are familiar with it.

At its basis, the philosophy of natural law recognizes that everything has a nature to it. A tree has the elements of a tree: sap, wood, bark, leaves or needles, the absorption of moisture through its roots, etc. It is not the nature of a tree to be clay. That human beings also have a nature is a simple acknowledgement of reality—nothing can exist without a nature. In science we easily discuss “laws of nature,” such as the existence of gravity or the Second Law of Thermodynamics (that everything is winding down). Natural law is the story of how things work.

But natural law goes beyond our material makeup. It is the story of purpose. As Charles Rice observed, “Natural law is easy to understand when we are talking about physical nature. But it applies as well to the moral sphere. Morality is governed by a law built in to the nature of man and is knowable by reason. Man can know, through the use of his reason, what is in accord with his nature and therefore good.” [3] All creation has a purpose, something it is meant for and, conversely, things it is not meant for. Cheetos™ may be delicious, but they are meant to be a snack. They can be eaten for lunch, but to do so violates the nature of Cheetos. The same truth exists in all of nature, including for human beings—man has a nature. And this is where it is important to recognize that the Judeo-Christian belief that humans are created in the image of God is fundamentally important to understanding the nature of man and, consequently, of society and its governing tenets. To be in God’s image is to have an inherent dignity not afforded anything in else in nature. Western Civilization, largely a reflection of the Judeo-Christian influence, has traditionally—although not flawlessly—manifested this understanding in our laws.

America’s laws were traditionally rooted in the English Common Law, which recognized the supremacy of God’s law. Sir William Blackstone, the preeminent English legal authority whom America’s founders followed, said that “law, in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action… which is prescribed by some superior and which the inferior is bound to obey….Man, considered a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is entirely a dependent being.” [4] Blackstone asserted that English law was based on the laws of God and that God, as the author of nature, laid down immutable rules of right and wrong conduct. These rules were part of the nature of things.

In truth, Blackstone was propounding ideas that had existed for centuries. Aristotle observed, “Of political justice part is natural, part legal, natural, that which everywhere has the same force and does not exist by people's thinking this or that…”[5]cCicero described law as “the highest reason, implanted in Nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite…right is based, not upon men’s opinions, but upon Nature.”[6] Centuries later in his Summa Theologica, Aquinas defined law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community,”[7] and enumerated four kinds of law: The eternal law, the natural law, the human law, and the divine law. The natural law was the rule of reason, “promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind so as to be known by him naturally.”[8] Aquinas believed that to be just, any human law must conform to natural, divine, and eternal laws—that the four are integrated (this stands in contrast with some Enlightenment thinkers who tried to separate God from natural and human laws).

The importance of the natural law philosophy, particularly that rooted in “nature’s God,” to the appropriate role of government and laws should not be underestimated. Natural law insists that human beings have certain rights by virtue of their humanness, and only egregious behavior on the part of an individual sacrifices any of those rights. Laws are enacted to acknowledge the rights of individuals by stating the penalties for violating those rights. To steal is to deny the right of another to his own property, thereby justifying the removal of the thief’s right to freedom.

Just as individuals have no right to violate natural law, neither does any government have the legitimate authority to violate the rights that individuals have by virtue of natural law. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter From the Birmingham Jail, appealed to natural law by saying “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”[9] The injustice against which King spoke was rooted in an unwillingness to acknowledge that all human beings, as creations in the image of God, had the same rights, and the government that treated them unequally was in violation of natural law and therefore fundamentally unjust.

Natural law stands between mankind and tyranny. It demands rights for those who might otherwise be denied them by someone with more power. Those who would have government act on their behalf to impose their will and deny others their fundamental rights (e.g., the right of the unborn to life), are therefore threatened by natural law. This is why opponents of natural law philosophy attacked Justice Thomas so vehemently—to acknowledge natural law is to examine whether a behavior or policy is just. And it is why America’s Founders were so vehemently opposed to democracy as a form of government—because, as Jefferson noted, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” America’s Republican government, as blueprinted in the Constitution, was designed to limit the power of government so no one would be able to infringe on natural law and the rights expounded in the Declaration of Independence: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

America would benefit immeasurably from an education in the philosophy of natural law. After all, no citizenry educated in this philosophy would stand for unjust manmade laws that violate “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”

~Shyla Lefever

[1] Peter Steinfels, “Natural Law Collides with the Laws of Politics in the Squabble over a Supreme Court Nomination,” New York Times, Aug. 17, 1991, p. A8.

[2] Clarence Thomas, “The Higher Law Background of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” I2 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 63 (1989).

[3] Charles Rice, 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What It Is & Why We Need It. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999, p. 30.

[4] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765; reprint ed., Birmingham: The Legal Classics Library, 1983) 1:38-39.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book V.

[6] Cicero, “Laws”, in Great Legal Philosophers (C. Morris, ed., 1959), 44.